Mitterrand’s Grand Entrance

(continued from yesterday)

On May 21, 1981, eleven days after his election, Francois Mitterrand officially took office as the French president. The day was marked by official ceremonies and public events. After the ritual wreath under the Arc de Triomphe, Mitterrand headed to Paris’ Left Bank for a new ceremony of his own: a pilgrimage to the Panthéon that was orchestrated to outdo Giscard’s farewell two days prior.

The Pantheon, completed in 1789 – the year of the French Revolution, was a symbolic mausoleum to “receive the bodies of great men who died in the period of French liberty”. Mitterrand entered the mausoleum holding a solitary rose — the symbol of the French socialists — as the Orchestre de Paris played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in the background. The crowd outside and the TV viewers didn’t know that but the Pantheon had been turned into a studio for the occasion. Cameras greeted Mitterrand and followed his descent in the crypt. Artist Serge Moati was engaged to direct the entire sequence. Rehearsals, body doubles and props (for the flowers) were used. Shrewd video editing enabled Mitterrand to enter the Pantheon with a single rose but place three roses on three graves; as Pierre Mauroy, Mitterrand’s first prime minister, said: “The rose for Jean Jaures represented our heritage; it was for the man who knew how to mobilize the left. The rose for Jean Moulin was the man who was able to unite Frenchmen from all walks of life to resist the foreign invador. The rose for Victor Schoelcher was the man who made of France the emancipator of peoples.” When Mitterrand emerged from the Panthéon to face a crowd of cheering young supporters brandishing red roses, he displayed the first smile of his inauguration day. A final flourish was provided by a rendition of the Marseillaise, exuberant post-Giscard tempo that has been personally prescribed by Mitterrand.

But if Mitterrand’s election elated his supporters, it produced apprehension in the West and in certain areas of France. As Mitterrand entered the Pantheon, many Parisians frantically packed their bags to flee the impending socialist “campaign to out-Keynes even Keynes”. Hidden behind these fears was a deeper realization that France’s unparalleled economic prosperity of the last thirty years had ended. Only two years before, the demographer Fourastié eulogized the era by his neologism, Les Trente Glorieuses. Mitterrand’s election, in this sense, was as much a vote against incumbency as a profound soul-searching.

Yet, Mitterrand’s moderate supporters believed that he would take a far more centrist approach once in office but he went on with his most radical promises: he created 250,000 new government jobs, raised pay for government employees, shortened the workweek from 40 to 39 hours, added a fifth week of paid vacation, reduced the retirement age to 60, increased social payments through Allocations Familiales, and nationalized 38 banks and 7 industrial giants. The results were an unmitigated disaster. The budget deficit tripled; inflation and unemployment stood in double digits. Mitterrand had to devalue the franc no less than three times to keep France’s exports competitive. Following the time-honored traditions of French presidents, Mitterrand sacked his first ministry and embarked on one of the most extraordinary reversals of economic policy in modern history: he froze the budget in 1983 and held raises for public employees below the rate of inflation. Entitlement programs were rolled back, and labour rules that restricted private sector hirings were weakened. By the mid-80s, the budget was back in balance, and inflation fell to around 4%, thanks to this reversal which Mitterrand called “La Rigueur,” or roughly “Austerity” in English.

(Video of Mitterrand’s Pantheon Visit below; begins at 3:30 mark)


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